WRJ's Café Renée: A Bit of Europe Slips Into Town

You could easily pass right by Café Renée. The Tuckerbox and Piecemeal Pies are a few steps up South Main Street, in White River Junction. Trail Break, Big Fatty's, and Elixir are two minutes in the other direction. There's no big sign in the window, nothing that shouts "Come on in!" Just some lights on inside.

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Opening the door and stepping in, you notice two things. First, the coffee, which is worth a second glance not just because of the appealing chalk drawings, but because of the price.

The coffee comes from Mountain Grove, the WRJ-based roaster.

Then there's the calm -- the tables neatly set out, the remarkable checkerboard floor that really is reminiscent of a European café and that's given more of a role of honor than it had when this was the Boho Café. And, of course, there's Janni Renée Hansen, wearing a beret, who greets you with a shy, welcoming smile.

Janni is a retired MIT grant-writer who got to know Hotel Coolidge owner David Briggs in the mid-1980s, when she and her now-husband, Jeff, led an Appalachian Mountain Club trip to Vermont that happened to dine at the Coolidge one evening. She and Jeff were married in the hotel in 1987, and made regular trips there throughout the years.

She began working at the Coolidge's front desk last fall, while the café sat empty after the Boho's owners moved on. "David knows how much I love this room," Janni says, explaining how she and Jeff came to take it on. It first opened in June to serve hotel guests during Dartmouth graduation. Then, in mid-July--once Jeff was on vacation from his job teaching high-school Spanish on Cape Cod--it opened for breakfast and lunch, both for hotel guests and anyone stopping in. "We snuck in," she says. And, because they've confronted the same staffing problems faced by other White River Junction restaurants, "We're still not really ready to be out there," she says.

Café Renée is still in the process of being born. It's got a "continental" approach to breakfast -- read pastries, bagels, croissants, quiche, yogurt, coffee and tea. "If guests want a full breakfast," says Janni, "we invite them to consider the Tuckerbox." And lunches are light as well -- wraps and salads. "We're really playing up a more continental approach to food," Janni says. "Well, of course, the room itself is more continental. And then, we're thinking about portions as something you can eat up here, rather than something you eat some of and then box the rest and take away. If the price is right. A small item should be a dollar." Which, in fact, is all you'll pay for a small pastry.

Traffic has been building as the Hansens figure out what they'd like to do. "I have a list of locals now — I know them by name and what they want," says Janni. But given the understated elegance of the space, she says, "It would be wonderful to have jazz here, maybe a wine bar. Nothing raucous, more genteel and thoughtful."

"No mosh pit!" Jeff adds. 

Café Renée is open weekdays from 7 am to 2 pm, and weekends for breakfast only, from 7 am to 11 am. "Though while we’re cleaning up and still in the building, if someone comes by and is hungry, I’ll reach in and get something," Janni says.

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